There is no question about it, the Odia film industry is dying a slow death. This has been evident in the quality of the films coming out of the state for the last 20 years. Earnings have stagnated and cinema halls have closed down. Why did this happen? What is the reason for this downturn? Can anything be done to help it recover? Let us explore the answers to these questions in the following paragraphs.
This idea came to my mind when I heard about the recent Papu Pom Pom movie poster controversy. I confess I’ve not actually kept up with the happenings in this industry as I never was much of a fan. But still, the situation on the ground is dire and it looks like the whole industry is diseased. The causes are many but they all boil down to one thing, there is not enough money to go around. In actuality, there is not enough money in the hands of people who watch movies either, but that is a different topic.
There is no easy way to say this: the most talented artists are not staying in the state and those left do not have any talent. Let me clarify that there are some bright spots, but they are few and far in between. The lure of Bollywood is strong and many highly talented people have left Odisha for Mumbai. Delhi has also claimed people from us as they have a strong drama tradition.
I’m not condemning those who left in search of fame and fortune (may they get what they wish for) but there needs to be a way to retain talent. Here the issue raises its head again, there is just no money. Without good financing, a good movie cannot be made and no one wants to associate their name with a terrible product. Even if an artist wanted set aside monetary concerns for themselves, everything surrounding them also need doing and people do not work for free. Still, money is a big issue but lets talk about it later. There is another way to mitigate brain drain.
We cannot stop artists from migrating out, but what we can do is nurture more in-grown talent. There are some institutes that have courses in Cinematography, Editing, Visual Effects etc but we do not have a good acting school, nothing like the National School of Drama (New Delhi) or FTII (Pune). What we need here is government support. We need to build an coursework for on screen acting, something that can at least help our available talent pool to broaden their horizons.
Formula films are not bad. They bring in money and so they are made in large numbers and made very cheaply. They sell because the risks are known and people can recoup their investments easily with them. They are a common staple around the country and I’m not saying that people should not be making them. But for 20 years we have not had many original scripts.
Most of the dross being screened today are remakes of South India films, with cookie cutter storylines, old repeated dialogue and characters that would not convince a child to look twice. They are not connected to Odia culture, their characters have nothing in common with us, their storylines do not resonate with us. We need something new, something that separates us from the others, some story unique to us.
There are some films that have bucked the trend. Films like Sala Budha (Sambalpuri), Hello Arsi, Krantidhara etc tell us that our storytelling skills have not died out. But these films are not money makers. These are not the films that drive audiences to theaters. People now watch Bollywood/Hollywood movies instead. Odia films are now relegated to small theaters in small towns. There needs to be a change in how we produce and consume movies.
Lack of Technical Skills
Filmmaking is not only about what goes on in front of the camera. The people behind the camera are far more important, be they directors or audio technicians or VFX artists or many more. These skills do not come cheap. Professionals demand a very high premium, most of which is what producers skimp on to pay superstars (or at least some people thik them to be).
We actually do not lack technical expertise, with the Biju Patnaik Film and Television Institute of Odisha in Cuttack which offers many courses in the film and TV industry. What we lack are good directors. Directors need both skill and creativity to make good films. However we can see the lack of creativity in Odia film direction from far away. However, it all comes back to the money. Good directors cannot stay because they have better opportunities for both fame and fortune outside the state and bad directors cannot be left out because they are only game in town.
There are some good directors in Odia cinema but all of them have been educated from outside the state. Most of them work in niche films that have not had commercial success even after willing awards. It comes back to the lack of support from the government for a good drama academy. We need more mainstream directors who understand the Odia thought process and can translate it to the screen.
Loss of Infrastructure
The 1999 supercyclone was devastating to the Odia film industry. We lost many production houses and theaters in the disaster. There are now a little over a hundred theaters remaining operational around the state. Odia films now have to compete with Bollywood blockbusters and dubbed Hollywood films. With the relatively lower quality of films from Odisha it’s no wonder they are losing ground.
There is not much that can be done about this without a cash infusion into better films. The changing trends in the habits of the movie going public is also causing problems for profitability. The only way forward seems to be to embrace the change fully, transition to Internet TV wholesale and cater to the growing Netflix/Amazon Prime market. I do not mean take to these platforms specifically but join the trend of screening movies in select theaters and then release the movie in Internet TV platforms. This would also help curb piracy as films would become more accessible and affordable.
As 4G LTE penetration improves in the hinterlands of Odisha, the market for Odia language programming is expanding and I think those to choose to to ignore it are going to be swept away in the change.
Lack of Investment
The industry is in dire need of investment. There is a serious lack of financial support for filmmakers from either the government or financial institutions. This lack of support is directly responsible for the state of the film industry in Odisha. Without monetary compensation, talented artists, scriptwriters, directors and technical experts have to seek opportunities elsewhere.
This has encouraged the entrance of black money into Odia filmmaking. Most of the movies made in the last 20 years are rumoured to be financed by black money. Such films were completely formulaic and made to recoup expenses fast. This has given rise to actors with very little skills who have turned into superstars, but with very little staying power. Veteran actors are now forced to act in B grade films to make ends meet and even good earning in theaters do not translate to good pay.
The unified tax regime under GST has also increased woes for theater owners, with a flat 18% tax on tickets under ₹100 has increased ticket prices for small halls which used to pay 5% under the older tax structure.
We need more support from the government, both in the form of tax breaks and also loans. The Odisha Film Development Corporation established by the state has helped some with financing but it is not well funded itself so it is forced to choose. Some films have gotten tax breaks here and there but there needs to be more effort. Investment by financial institutions also needs to be encouraged.
Lack of Exposure
There is a trend of dubbing South Indian movies for the movie watching North Indian public. This has greatly increased the popularity of such movies in India and abroad. However, no one dubs Odia movies for release outside the state. Our audience is very small compared to the rest of the nation. This has also contributed to less profits for Odia filmmakers
We need to dub Odia language movies, specially the better produced ones, so they can find a more diverse audience. This would help in expanding the market and would translate to more money in the pocket.
The Odia film industry is at the moment like a dying man on life support. Mediocrity for years has sapped the talent and skill out of the state and there does not seem to be much of a future for this industry. However, all is not lost. We still have time to take positive steps to revive it. We just need to take a holistic approach, as piecemeal steps have not done anything more than staunch the bleeding wound.
Many steps have already been taken by some TV production houses like Ortel TV, Sarthak, Tarang etc who are now nurturing new talent and producing better quality content. However, scripts have still not improved and nor has the acting. I still hope we’ll see better actors and scripts as better profitability draw them in.
I do not expect world class movies to come out of Odisha anytime soon, but with changing technology, I’m optimistic that we’ll see some good Odia films soon enough. How soon that would be I cannot say, but there is hope in the younger generation who have known the internet all their lives. They’ll drive Odia films out of this morass they are stuck in. Or they might finally stick the knife in the heart of this ailing developmentally disabled enterprise out of a sense of pity.
Who knows what the future will bring? I guess we’ll all see it happening. Thank you.